After a season of firsts for the women’s basketball team, the expectations for next season have raised – and just receiving an NCAA bid isn’t good enough anymore.
The Bulls played their first season in the Big East and proved they can compete in one of the toughest conferences in the country. USF reached the Big East Tournament, capturing a No. 7 seed. Despite losing to Notre Dame 73-66 in the first round, the Bulls gained respect from opposing teams.
To validate their spot as a competitive program, the Bulls captured the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid with a No. 9 seed in the Bridgeport Region. Even though the Bulls couldn’t pull out a first-round victory over Southern California, the appearance left the impression that USF needs to be taken seriously.
“I thought it was a great stepping stone for the program, and we learned a lot from going to the NCAA Tournament,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “We have set the bar high, and the expectation now is to go to the NCAA Tournament every year.”
USF will return seven players from this year’s squad, losing only three seniors: Ezria Parsons, Sharon Cambridge and Courtney Hunt. The team also has five recruits coming in who are expected to make an impact next season.
The incoming recruiting class was ranked No. 17 in the nation by the Nike Blue Star Basketball Report and was named third best in the Big East. The Bulls added depth in the frontcourt with Stephanie Sarosi (6-foot-5), Ashley McCray (6-foot-4) and Melissa Dalembert (6-foot-3). They also added wing players in Porche Grant (6-foot), Caitlyn Mitryck (6-foot) and Daiane Packer (5-foot-9).
“On paper, our class is ranked in the top 20 in the country, but how are they going to adjust to the college game?” Fernandez said. “Is it a talented class on paper? Yeah, it’s probably the best class we’ve ever had, but that’s on paper.”
The team is hoping senior Tristen Webb can receive a medical redshirt to be eligible to play for a sixth season. Webb suffered a season-ending injury to her right knee after tearing her ACL before the season.
Webb’s redshirt would add depth and senior leadership to the guard position.
“If Webb is able to play next year, that gives us another experienced player on the floor,” Fernandez said.
The scoring load was squarely on the shoulders of junior forward Jessica Dickson, who was named a unanimous first-team All-Big East selection. Dickson led the nation in scoring for most of the season, but Fernandez realized he must put some talent around Dickson to go further in the tournament.
“We added some more post presence, and if we can get more creative out on the perimeter, we can take some weight off of her shoulders,” Fernandez said. “So she doesn’t have to score 25 (points) every night for us to win.”
With experience and talent coming back, the Bulls will have a legitimate shot at making a run at a Big East title if the team can avoid injury. The excitement is there, and the success of this season has left the women’s team hungry for more.
But with success comes pressure, and Fernandez welcomes both.
“The expectations are great, and as a coach you want expectations and you want that pressure,” Fernandez said. “You want to challenge yourself and want that from the fans and Athletic Department, but I’m excited for next year, and we have a lot of work to do.”
BY THE NUMBERS
682 -The number of points Jessica Dickson scored, a season record, beating Wanda Guyton’s 1988-89 total of 549.
322 -The number of points scored by Shantia Grace, the team’s second leading scorer.
0065 -Junior Jessica Dickson is second in scoring all time in women’s basketball history, closing in on Wanda Guyton’s 1,820 points.